Opposition and Idolatry
Passage: Acts 19:21–41
Acts 19. We are still looking at the beginning of the Ephesian church. As I said last week, the beginning of the church in Ephesus was every church planter’s dream. In just two years, this city went from almost no one having ever heard the name of Jesus to pretty much every person in the whole province having heard the name of Jesus. And a strong critical mass of people not only heard, but believed in Jesus. That sounds amazing, right? Well, until it causes the whole city to riot.
Historically, Christianity has seen the most opposition when it spreads fast from almost nothing and when it wanes after having great influence. We know which shift we are in today. In the past 30 years about 40 million adult Americans have left the church. In the 1980’s, the vast majority of Americans called themselves Christians. Today, less than half of our nation would identify as such.
Now, I do need to say that many of these people leaving the church were probably never Christians to begin with so, at some level, we are seeing what we really have as a church, but even so, because of this religious shift, Christians have less cultural influence in society today, at least from the seat of power, and opposition is rising to our faith. And I would argue that what we are experiencing is a return to what Christians around the world over the past 2000 years would call normal and that this transition can be good for our own faith.
This whole passage is a passage about opposition to the gospel. And they are experiencing much more opposition than any of us are currently. It’s important as a church in any context really to understand why we experience opposition and how we should engage it. I’m going to walk through this passage and spend most of my time on the first question and less on the second.
- Why we experience opposition
Now, sometimes Christians are opposed because they can be jerks. Just a category I want to have out there. But that is not what is going on in this text and, generally speaking, that’s not where most of the opposition we face comes from. Christians experience opposition because the gospel directly confronts idols in human hearts. This is exactly what we see in this passage. Christianity in Ephesus is growing and it’s even getting to the point where it’s changing the economy of the city. Ephesus was very proud of the temple it had to the Greek goddess Artemis. As the myth goes, a meteorite came down to earth near Ephesus and they thought the meteorite looked like Artemis. They thought Artemus was sending the people an image of herself. So, they brought it into the city and created a shrine for it. They actually created a whole temple for it and this temple was seven times larger than the Parthenon in Athens making it one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
And there were people who made their living selling little trinkets and shrines of Artemis and with people no longer worshiping Artemis, they became concerned and even mad at these Christians because they can’t sell their trinkets. So, at one level, there is simple economic concern about the gospel. If the gospel thrives, certain people don’t make money. If most of Orlando devoted their lives to Jesus, I can imagine the strip clubs not liking us very much. But, we might also spend less money on entertainment and give more away. We might eat out less and have people over more. So that is a reality, but I think something deeper is happening. I think the opposition has multiple layers and the most foundational layer isn’t just making money, it’s idolatry and we see this in verse 26.
It’s interesting that there are no sermons recorded in this passage, but the summary of Paul’s message is recorded by this upset silversmith named Demetrius. He says, 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, esaying that fgods made with hands are not gods. - Acts 19:26. Do you see that? Paul is saying that these gods they make with their hands are not real gods. And if that’s true, what are they? Idols.
And Demetrius is not wrong about Paul’s message. This is a hallmark of Paul’s ministry. He confronts idol’s in Lystra, in Philippi, and in Athens as Robert preached about a few weeks ago. Paul seemed to have a knack for seeing the idols in a city and bringing the gospel to bear to them.
So, what exactly is an idol? It’s easy to read this passage and think, “Well, we don’t have any silly little shrines or trinkets. We’ve developed past these silly Romans so this passage doesn’t have a lot to say to us.” If that’s the way we look at this passage, then we really don’t understand much about idols. An idol is when we worship the created in the place of the creator. And this makes sense because every culture that is not based on the glory and grace of God has to look for hope from some created thing. They have to look to something else to save it.
When we take a thing, even a good thing, and make it the best thing..the thing we hold most dear…the thing that gives us value and identity, it becomes an idol. If you lose something good, but it’s not an idol, you’ll be sad. If you lose something good and it is an idol, it’s the highest thing in your life, you won’t know how to continue on without it. And we can do this with almost anything. You look at pagan cultures and even some Eastern cultures today and they seem to have an endless number of idols, why? Because almost anything can be an idol. Christianity says you are saved by grace. Idols say you are saved by something else. And every idol will let us down because we are asking more of it than it can possibly give us. Let me flesh that out a bit.
In this passage, we see the idol of money. If you think about the goddess Artemis, she basically became the goddess of financial prosperity. She was the goddess of fertility which includes the ground that gives the harvest. But, once this meteorite came and this massive temple was built, it became more of a tourist attraction. Their city rose and fell economically with the success of the tourists coming to see the temple of Artemis. We wouldn’t know anything about that here in Orlando:)
Because of this Temple, this small city became crazy wealthy for its time. So, they were making money from Artemis, but they also believed that honoring and worshiping her was the fuel behind their financial success. So they were worried about the hit to their income if people became Christians and didn’t buy their stuff, but they were also worried that if Artemis proper is not honored and worshiped, then she would not bless them financially and might even stop the crops from growing to harvest. We see both layers of this opposition in verse 27 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the ggreat goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” - Acts 19:27
And the same is true of us today. Business is not bad. Money is not bad. Actually, money can be very fun and used for very good things. But when it becomes the thing that we live for, the thing that we think will ultimately make us happy or the thing that we can’t live without, it becomes an idol and we become its slave. We will even sacrifice to it. Tim Keller once said that we look at child sacrifice in more primitive cultures like Ephesus and we are appalled by it, but we do a similar thing in our worship of prosperity today. We sacrifice our children by not giving them the time or love they need because we are pursuing what we desire most. We sacrifice our family, our friends, our physical health, and our emotional health because we have actually become a slave of the thing that we think is most important. Instead of getting true satisfaction from that thing, we become a miserable slave to it.
I knew a guy in Orlando who was in commercial development and he and his business partner were doing extremely well. At some point he overextended himself and basically created a ponzi scheme to keep the money coming in. A ponzi scheme is where you pay off your investors with other peoples’ investment money instead of using that money for what you said you would invest in. Well, 2008 happened and he couldn’t find enough new investors to pay off his existing ones and it came out that he had lost about $8,000,000 and he took his life. Financial success and living in luxury were idols for him. They were the most important thing so he compromised his ethics to get them and when he got caught he had nothing left to live for.
What’s fascinating to me is that his partner, who is a Christian and had no legal obligation to pay this money back to the investors, spent the next decade, at great cost to himself, paying back every dime. Why was he willing to do this? Because he had a very different relationship with money. For him it is a stewardship, not an idol. In the words of Keller, he had figured out how to demythologize money.
So we can make business an idol, but, again, we can do this with almost anything. We can make marriage and romance an idol. We can feel like the affection of one person is the only thing that makes me feel validated. And when we do this, we suffocate that person with a burden they can never satisfy. We become codependent on them. We ask them for more than they can ever give us, we become anxious about losing them, and we will sacrifice our ethics to get that affection.
We can make children an idol feeling like their success validates us. So when our children don’t make the decisions we want them to make, we either feel like we have no purpose in the world or we blame God because we worked so hard and didn’t get the results we wanted. But making our children idols actually makes us worse at parenting. I know a guy who had five kids and when they were young, they were the best behaved kids. They sat still, they read their Bibles in the morning, they obeyed perfectly, but both the parents would now say looking back that they made their children an idol. They found their validation in their kids' behavior and the kids could feel this pressure. And this turned out tragically for the children. The parents would now say that the pressure they put on their kids to validate their parents through their behavior put them on some very self destructive paths.
So why is it that we have a natural proclivity towards idols? Well, idols serve us. I can almost hear the irony in Paul’s voice when he says man made gods are no gods at all. In Isaiah 44, God says, “You cut down a tree, make half of it an idol and pray to it for food, then use the other half for firewood to cook your own food, then you act like the idol gave it to you.” Our sin doesn’t want a god who we can’t control conforming us into his image, our sin wants a god we can control that we make in our image. We think we are in control…as we become slaves to our idols. It’s weird to think that idols are both worthless and dangerous. They are worthless because they can’t give us the joy and satisfaction we seek, but they are dangerous because through them, we become enslaved to dark things that ultimately fuel sin, not sanctification. They give way to anxiety, depression, and loneliness, not satisfaction and joy. And then we have to turn to other things to cope with the way our idols are punishing us as we continue to devote our lives to them. It’s a downward spiral.
Everyone is looking for something to save them. And this is exactly what the gospel exposes and confronts. In Ephesus the gospel engages the idols of the city and for some this is like the fragrance of life and they give their lives to Jesus who is the only one who can save them. For others it is like the stench of death and they revolt against it. In CS Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, there is a bus that goes to hell and brings some of the people there to heaven. There is this powerful scene where one of the people in hell has a cruel whispering lizard of lust on his shoulder. An angel offers to kill it and set the person free and the person cries: “Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
That’s such a great illustration of how people respond to the gospel when it confronts their idols. To let go of that idol would feel like death. And that’s where the opposition comes from. That’s why the opposition can be so emotional. And what ensues? Absolute chaos. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, refers to the Ephesians as wild beasts. Luke says that some of the people in the riot didn’t even really understand why they were there. The whole crowd began to chant “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” They couldn’t find Paul, so they grabbed his companions.
That’s where the opposition comes from, now, how do we engage this opposition?
- How to engage this opposition
I’ll be faster on this part. So many in our culture want to face opposition with fighting. We can be tempted to actually employ the tools of darkness to fight back. We gossip, we slander, and we lose our tempers. In this text, Paul desires to go into the chaos and help his friends, but the disciples wisely convince him not to because he would likely be killed. It’s actually the pagan city clerk who comes to the rescue and puts the uprising down!
The way Christians engage opposition is to do what Paul has been doing all along. We identify the idols and we bring the gospel to bear. This was what Paul was so good at. Let’s just use the seventh commandment since we recited it earlier as an example of identifying the idol. The seventh commandment is that you should not commit adultery. Martin Luther famously said that you can’t break commandments 2-10 without breaking the first. What is the first? You should have no other god before me. That’s just another way of saying you should not worship idols. To get to the point of adultery, something else became more important than God. It might be comfort, it might be respect, it might be affection, it might be sex. It could be a lot of things, but at some point that thing became more important than God. That became the thing that would ultimately satisfy and save. And that is when it became an idol.
Sometimes we can see the symptoms of idols before we see the idol itself. Because idols can’t offer what we ask of them, they create chaos. They create anxiety, they create stress, they create depression, and they fuel sin. Sin like adultery. And, again, then come the coping mechanisms. It’s so ironic in Ephesus that these people are saying that their social order is in jeopardy because of these Chrisitians, but the city clerk says, no, our order is in jeopardy right now because of you, Epheisans. Christianity is not the problem, the idols are the problem. Christianity is the answer!
And because Christianity is the answer, once we identify the idol, we bring the gospel to bear on it. Remember back to the lizard of lust on that man’s shoulder. He was afraid that killing it would kill him. Well, what does Jesus say would be a hallmark of the Christian life? Dying to ourselves. Luke 924 For uwhoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 wFor what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? - Luke 9:24
And this message of dying to ourselves is going to be extremely hard for our culture to hear because we value self-love above self-denial. Our cultural idol of self-love actually keeps us from what we need most and becomes a way of hating ourselves. What we need to understand is that dying to ourselves, to our idols, will actually bring us true life. Our call as Christians is to help people see that their idols won’t die for them. They will actually enslave and punish them. Only Jesus died for us to save us from punishment. Only Jesus was consumed by the chaos of his trial to bring peace to our souls. By giving us his righteousness and his Spirit, only Jesus can free us of our idolatry because only he gives us what our hearts truly long for: him.
And I want everyone to hear this clearly, we will not be able to identify idols in others and bring the gospel to bear to them until we are doing this daily for ourselves. Everyday we are tempted in some way. What if in every temptation, we stopped and asked ourselves, what idol am I being tempted to embrace right now? It takes practice to even be able to identify our own idols. If you’re tempted to cheat in school, could it be that academics is an idol? If we find ourselves angry or anxious about our country, could it be that politics, comfort, or even power is an idol? If we hardly see our families because of our work, could it be that climbing the corporate ladder is an idol?
Again, in Isaiah God gives this really interesting test for idols. He asks the people, “Can your idols tell the future? Can your idols tell the heavens to move and they do? Have your idols ever provided you with blessings you didn't have to work for?” Are the things we turn to for fulfillment actually delivering? Has your investment account predicted the future? Has sex ever lasted beyond the act itself? Does your job always make you feel secure? Is any relationship able to tell the heavens to move? No!
What we have is a heart problem. My Mississippian father in law has a saying, “Your towards are off.” That means the direction you are aiming towards is wrong. How can change our towards? How can we see the way our desires are corrupted and pull our hearts away from the idols we so desire? The answer isn’t to stop desiring them, but to give your heart something greater to desire. Something that will reorder all these other desires. And that is exactly what Jesus does. By his grace we repent of our idols. We repent of the things that we look to for our ultimate satisfaction and we acknowledge that only Jesus can give us what we long for. This is exactly what Paul means when he commands us to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit who does change our hearts. Who gives us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self control.
If I talk with a man who is really tempted to commit adultery, I’m going to talk with him about investing in his relationship with his wife. To spend time together, to build the romance, and to repent where he needs to. As this love is rekindled, the desire to run to other places for that love decreases. In the same way, when we run to Jesus, when we repent of our idols, when we spend time developing that relationship, our hearts are rekindled and our desire to run to other things for our ultimate satisfaction decreases. This is what makes Christianity different from any other world view. It’s not about mastering our lusts, it’s about gaining a greater love that will give us the joy and satisfaction we long for.
The gospel isn’t “don’t like idols,” it’s “God is both better and available to you.” The truth about idols isn’t that they are good but you shouldn’t have them, it’s that they aren’t real, they can’t deliver on what they promise, and they will damage you like sugar damages a car if you put it in the gas tank. You weren’t made for idols, you were made for God, and he is not far from you.